For this week’s archive feature, we delve back into Uncut’s July 2011 issue (Take 170) – just before the release of Bon Iver’s second album – to find Vernon sunning himself in California, consorting with Kanye and shaping up as “the Neil Young of our generation”. What happened? “For Emma… is the past,” he says. “This is the present, and it’s more colourful and inviting.” Words: Alastair McKay
The road to Justin Vernon ends in a bungalow, at the shady end of a desert cul-de-sac in California. From the street, looking past the house, there are views to the mountains, where tourists can ride the Palm Springs Aerial tramway from the floor of Coachella Valley to the top of San Jacinto Peak. The view from the back door is less majestic. When I arrive at the bungalow that is serving as his base for the Coachella Festival, Vernon is pulling himself out of the pool. He is here with Gayngs, the sprawling soft-rock band formed by his old friend Ryan Olson, who is poolside in tight trunks, smoking a cigarillo. Har Mar Superstar, another Gayng member, can be seen, patting his belly fondly as he considers making an entry into the afternoon. Indoors, on the sofa, an unidentified man in Y-fronts snores, while someone else sings a Mexican lament. The scene, says a voice from the kitchen, is “dude soup”.
Last night, Gayngs headlined Coachella’s Mojave stage – quite an achievement for a group that was perceived by many as a joke. But that’s not the only reason Vernon is here at Coachella. Tomorrow, he will join his old friends The National for a beautifully measured performance of “Terrible Love”, while Duran Duran’s “Rio” echoes out from the adjacent stage. He is also rumoured to be guesting with Kanye West, reprising his collaboration, “Lost In The World”, from the rapper’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Then there is the small matter of Bon Iver’s self-titled second album, a startling record that will surprise those who had pigeonholed Vernon as a rural folkie, a hairshirt backwoodsman, on the basis of 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
Showered, and now wearing a shirt with an embroidered duck on the breast, Vernon ushers me to a shady corner by the pool. It is not entirely peaceful. Palm Springs airport is nearby, so the reflective mood is punctured by jet engines. Vernon’s voice is a low rumble, a result, perhaps, of the previous night’s exertions. The Gayngs show, he says, will be his last for a while, but he has enjoyed the experience.
“Man, you can take yourself too seriously,” he explains. “I don’t know if I ever did. But Gayngs is just not about fixing your problems. My dad always said: ‘There’s three rules in life.’ The first rule is: ‘Be a good person.’ The second one is about materialism, it’s something like: ‘If you can’t get something for nothing, you haven’t got anything.’ The third rule is: ‘Throw a good party.’ With Gayngs, I feel like I get to throw on sunglasses and fuck around.”
The point is well made, but it’s still slightly jarring to encounter Vernon in these surroundings. This desert bungalow is far removed from the remote cabin where Vernon recorded For Emma… during a bout of self-imposed isolation. The cabin has become the founding myth of Bon Iver, and while Vernon politely gives every indication that he would be happy if he never heard tell of it again, he is keen to correct a few misapprehensions. To understand what happened afterwards, he suggests, you have to appreciate what happened before. Growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Vernon had ingested his parents’ musical interests: blues and zydeco, jazz, John Prine, Dylan and Neil Young. When he started developing his own tastes, he was attracted to the energy of Primus and Fugazi. “I was a bit starstruck when I saw Ian MacKaye [of Minor Threat and Fugazi] at catering yesterday,” he reveals. “I was like ‘Oh shit, that guy’s my fucking hero.’” He liked Phish, and gospel. At college, he gravitated towards electronic experimentation – Steve Reich, Eno, David Tudor.
“The biggest change was in North Carolina when my band, DeYarmond Edison, did a residency at this art gallery. We did four months. Each month was curated by a different member. We each tried different things – we had 20-minute keyboard phase pieces, à la Eno, or we had nights where we played only Appalachian music. Sometimes we did gospel stuff, sometimes freakout punk.
“My residency was the human voice, so we did old slave spirituals. It was a weird concept for us to attempt, but you learn a lot about aches and pains and what pushing a voice can do. It was then that our band realised we needed to dissipate, but also during that time I started to sing in falsetto, doing Mahalia Jackson songs. That was when I started making demos.”
The haunting opening song on For Emma…, “Flume”, was the first time Vernon felt he had an identity for his own music. “I knew I was talented, but I did struggle with not feeling unique. I tried for a really long time – 15 years of writing songs – and I was thinking I might have to think about not doing this. ‘Flume’ was the catalyst for my life right now. I recorded it, not at the cabin, but I was there already. I was ready.”
Vernon was unwell, too. He had spent three months in bed with a liver infection. He had poison ivy on his face, his spine was out of alignment. It only recovered fully six months ago. “It’s like a weird metaphor for where I’m finally at now. I’m feeling better; because it was really fun for the record to take off, but it was also really hard, because my back was out the whole time. I feel like I’m on the other side of it now.”
Vernon has a habit of talking in metaphors, even when describing real events. I point this out, and he looks momentarily perturbed. “Maybe that’s because I don’t remember. If I was to try and remember the first day I went to the cabin I’d probably say it was fucking cold and I started a fire, I drank a few beers and then I maybe took a nap. I don’t think I played music for three weeks. I was just up there splitting wood, or nothing. It wasn’t despair or anything. It was just like boredom. Whatever you do, it takes a lot of time to get to a place where you can do it, still. Some people meditate – that’s not for me.”
Later, I ask Vernon’s brother (and tour manager) Nate to describe Justin’s mood back then. “It wasn’t misery. We would hang out during that time – and there were good times, and dark spots and turmoil. It was just a time when he was figuring a lot of stuff out, and escaping from it made it a lot easier.”
So the truth about the log cabin is not (as is popularly thought) that Vernon broke up with a girl, rushed off in despair, and spewed out a record?
“No,” he says with a note of finality. “Fuck, that is the most boring version of the story possible. Who hasn’t broken up with somebody? Who hasn’t broken up with somebody because they were still thinking about somebody else? Who hasn’t wrote a fucking song about it? I’m not bitter: I’m proud of this – the reason For Emma… took off is because the record’s good. It’s not about what I did.”
If the truth about For Emma… was obscured by the myth of the cabin, so was the subtlety of the music. Listen again, and it’s a record full of textures and ghostly moods.
“When I heard For Emma…, I think people were hearing something different than what I was hearing,” says Thomas Wincek, who collaborated with Vernon in Volcano Choir. “He got that comparison to Iron & Wine, but I always thought there was something weirder and more atmospheric about Justin’s stuff.”
If Gayngs gave vent to Vernon’s playful side, Volcano Choir was more experimental. A collaboration with Milwaukee post-rockers Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, it showcased Vernon’s vocals. “It was a weird chance just to be a lead singer,” says Vernon. “Not having to do anything on the guitar, and not having to write any of the music, just sitting on top of music feels really good.”
“They weren’t normal songs,” says Wincek. “So you would approach them more like a puzzle. For Justin it was more like ‘What kind of thing can I add to this with my voice as an instrument?’”
If collaborations with friends from Wisconsin were to be expected from a musician who enjoys the community spirit of his hometown, Vernon’s work with Kanye West came from leftfield. After enquiring about sampling Vernon’s vocal on “Woods” from 2009’s “Blood Bank” EP, West invited him to his Hawaii studio.
“The Kanye thing was surprising,” says Sean Carey, who drums in Bon Iver. “I didn’t doubt Justin would do something amazing. The surprise really was that he’d got to the level where people like Kanye were interested in his music.”
Vernon obviously relishes the fact that he is confounding expectations. “That’s the most interesting thing. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the new Neil Young record, but I love that he did it. I love that it’s a record of tape delays, and he did it with Daniel Lanois and he called it Le Noise. That is fucking awesome. And Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks, that’s fucking Gayngs. That’s like, ‘Fuck you, everybody, I’m going to do a rockabilly band.’ It’s really a lot like Gayngs, actually.”
So it shows that you’re not a country boy making folk records?
“No, and I never was. My house is next to farmers, and I like being outside, splitting wood, mowing the lawn, or hauling shit around. But following a pattern for a pattern’s sake is like bad death for me.”
The following morning, I meet Vernon at the King’s Highway, an “artisanal” diner. He is starting to flag. Far from living it up in Palm Springs, he went to bed at 9.30pm. He orders chilaquiles, and just as we are about to talk, the hostess rings a bell and sings a showtune. “When I was in here yesterday and she started singing, I said ‘Well, there’s something that doesn’t happen every day,’” says Vernon. “Evidently, it does.”
Vernon talks enthusiastically about the new Bon Iver record, and in particular the mood he was trying to convey in this new batch of songs. “For Emma… was this black-and-white thing; it’s a record of an event in time, and it’s past, it’s forever ago. This is like the present – it feels more colourful and inviting.”
Recorded at Vernon’s own April Base Studios, based in an old veterinary clinic in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, just a few miles from the house he grew up in, Bon Iver is a dense, oblique record. “It’s a little bit like taking a drug. It starts out and it’s kind of disarming in [opening track] ‘Perth’, and by the time you get to the end you’re just kind of glad to be on coast mode.”
That closing song “Beth/Rest” will be the most startling to listeners expecting a reprise of For Emma’s spartan aesthetic. It’s built on a 1980s’ synth sound, deliberately styled after Bruce Hornsby, with those oddly sterile sounds cocooning an autobiographical lyric. “During this whole process, I was like, whatever feels good is just right. Gayngs definitely helped with that. It doesn’t have anything to do with irony. Those sounds – they just feel so good to me. It’s like a song I would have written when I was 18. It’s about inviting love into your life, and not being afraid.
“People run away from relationships because they’re afraid of losing their independence. It doesn’t have to be that way. For me it’s about trying to get rid of the insecurity that caused me to think those things. There’s a death in that, but it’s beautiful. It’s like I’m saying goodbye to the days of dread, and the reasons I had to make For Emma. It was self-referential, it was self-loathing. It was important, I guess, but you don’t have to be afraid of linking up with another person and having faith that they’re not going to try to change who you are. That’s the ‘rest’ part. I’m talking about true love. I’d given up on it.”
Back at Coachella, waiting for Kanye West to come onstage, I run into The National’s Bryce Dessner, who offers this tribute to Vernon. “I think Justin’s the Neil Young of our generation. I’d go further, because he’s combining good songwriting and very adventurous sonic production in a way that I don’t think anyone else is doing. Usually, bands that are good at the sonic envelope are missing something in terms of writing actual songs. Justin does both things incredibly well.”
Coachella closes with an extraordinary performance from Kanye, full of operatics, dance, and pyrotechnics and Kanye lowered in on a crane. It peaks with “Lost In The World”; Kanye hogs centre stage, while Vernon, dressed in white, is mounted high on a plinth, looking like an angel and sounding like a robot. It’s a moment as beautiful as it is strange, and Vernon looks comfortably out of place.